Residents of Ngarbuh-Ntumbaw, which is in Donga-Mantung—one of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon plagued by conflict between separatist groups and government forces for the last four years in the northwest of the country—suspected nothing when they went to bed on the night of February 13, 2020, hoping that the next day would be like any other. Unfortunately, their morning was brutally interrupted by an alleged army operation which started at dawn and turned into veritable carnage. Indeed, an unprecedented massacre took place on February 14 in the village. Children and pregnant women were among the victims, and the shocking images of their burned and bullet-riddled bodies were widely shared on social media, sparking outrage.
A controversy ensued over the number of victims. According to various reports, there were 22 dead, including 14 children and two pregnant women. This number was confirmed by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ruppert Colville, and by the Bishop of Kumbo, a locality in the northwest region, not far from Ngarbuh-Ntumbaw. At this time, it is still difficult to determine the exact circumstances of this horrific killing. But the opposition, local NGOs and some civil society actors, including barrister Félix Agbor Nkongho and the journalist Mimi Mefo, accused the army of being responsible for it.
The Cameroonian government has formally denied these “fake allegations,” arguing that it was an “unfortunate incident,” which occurred following the exchange of fire between the security forces and secessionist rebels. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, Ilaria Allegrozzi, has contradicted the government, claiming it was a planned massacre by security forces and armed ethnic Fulani. HRW has also released a report confirming that at least 21 civilians, including 13 children, were killed. On the other hand, relatives of victims presented a fresco bearing the names of twelve of the children killed in this carnage at a requiem mass in Kumbo.
Defense and Communication Ministers have announced the establishment of a commission of “inquiry;” a euphemism often used to calm the controversy and to cover up the misdeeds of the army. In general, the Cameroonian authorities respond in three ways to the accusations against its army: first, they deny all of these accusations, evoking gross manipulation to tarnish the image of Cameroon; second, they accuse local human rights NGOs of having a hidden agenda and of using their humanitarian covers to import weapons from abroad (e.g. the NGO Ayah Foundation is actually accused of bringing in arms for the benefit of the Ambazonian separatists); and third, if indignation seems to be gaining strength, the government will announce the establishment of a national commission of inquiry, preventing the international community from getting involved.
However, investigations are rarely carried out. If they are actually carried out, the reports are never published. In the course of time, the indignation gradually dies out; the perpetrators of the crime go unpunished, and everyone forgets the drama, except the relatives of the victims.
For instance, in July 2018, a horrible video of the killing of two women and their children—including a seven-year-old girl and a two-year-old baby—was circulated on social media. The then Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, formally condemned a “vast orchestrated conspiracy” against the Cameroonian regime, before acknowledging the responsibility of the army a few weeks later, undoubtedly under the weight of international pressure. An investigation was announced, and the government claims to have arrested seven soldiers who are on trial, but no other details have been released to date.
Today, a majority of Cameroonians have lost faith in political actors and don’t believe any promises from them. Rather than winning the battle of hearts and minds, the government until now hasn’t shown much interest; instead it seems driven by a desire to defeat the separatists militarily. In the meantime, the conflict has become more and more deadly.
This conflict also reveals the failure of an authoritarian and hyper-centralized system, which ensures its survival on the basis of systemic and endemic corruption. Cameroon has literally become a bula matari—a Kikongo word meaning stone breaker—used by Crawford Young to describe the colonial and postcolonial state in Africa. The Cameroonian state has managed to defang and fragment the opposition by using both violence and bribes. The state succeeded in squashing people’s protest impulses either by co-opting or coercing those who dissent.
To be very clear, I am not an apologist for Ambazonia, an imaginary state whose independence was symbolically declared on October 1, 2017 by the English-speaking separatist leaders. There is no doubt that the latter have committed serious violations and crimes against civilians. However, I stress that the radicalization, resistance, and ability of the separatists to recruit adherents have been continuously fueled by atrocities committed by state forces. When civilians are killed, resentment is generated, especially among young people, who sometimes end up joining the secessionists to avenge their killed parents.
Whether in the war against the separatists or against Boko Haram in the north, reports from several sources indicate that thousands of civilians suspected or accused of conniving with the “terrorists”—another euphemism used, not only to label the separatists and Boko Haram, but also to combat any social protest in the country—are arrested and detained in inhumane and degrading conditions. For example, in Kossa in February 2015, 32 men were arrested after rumors spread that the village was providing food to Boko Haram.
We should remember that what is now known as the “Anglophone crisis” began with corporatist demands from lawyers and teachers who, in 2016, took to the streets to protest against what they called “francophonization” of the judicial and educational systems in the two English-speaking regions. Instead of engaging in dialogue with the protesters, the central administration chose a path of repression, arresting hundreds of demonstrators, killing at least four people and wounding several others. Faced with growing complaints against its repressive policy, the government finally met with the consortium of teachers and lawyers, but failed to find common ground, leading to the arrest of some of the people negotiating, including barrister Félix Agbor Nkongho. Subsequently, a video showing Cameroonian police ruthlessly mistreating students at the University of Buea in the southwest region has further radicalized a section of the population, especially young people. In this video, policemen are seen forcing students, including women, to plunge their face into the mud.
In this way, the horrific images from Ngarbuh are not an isolated incident. They are instead part of a systematic approach. They provide visual evidence that atrocities are committed against civilian populations, including children and women. Some of these violations are now documented and stored in a digital database housed at the University of Toronto in Canada.
Despite numerous calls from national and international NGOs, the international community has so far remained silent, a situation that the former President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, vigorously denounced following the publication of the recent massacres of children in Ngarbuh. Rawlings also criticized the failure of the African Union to stop the spiral of deadly violence that is affecting civilians. Recently, the United Nations has stepped up to the plate, requesting an independent investigation to shed light on this tragedy. The US has also called on the Cameroonian authorities for real dialogue, saying that the military response favored by the government will only strengthen the separatists.
French President Emmanuel Macron also denounced the intolerable human rights violations after pressure from an activist at the Paris International Agricultural Show. “I will call President Paul Biya next week and we will put maximum pressure on him to stop the situation. […]. I am doing my utmost,” Macron said.
Yet, France has always offered its diplomatic umbrella to the Cameroonian regime, particularly when the European Parliament adopted a resolution on April 2019 to condemn the gross human rights violations perpetrated against opponents and dissidents. During an official visit to Nigeria in July 2018, Macron publicly underlined his support to Paul Biya. But the Ngarbuh massacres could be a turning point in the political relationship between Cameroon and France. Some Cameroonian politicians have already strongly condemned Macron’s words. They propagate conspiracy theories on social media which allege that France and the USA are the main actors in this “hybrid war,” acting through their “separatist puppets.” Some media like Vision 4 and Afrique Media have also taken up this idea of a destabilization plan sponsored by foreign powers to control the succession of Biya, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday; 38 years of which he’s been in power.
At the same time, some political actors supported students to organize a demonstration in front of the French Embassy on February 24 to denounce the “condescending attitude” of Macron towards his Cameroonian counterpart. Rallies were also organized in other cities of Cameroon, including Garoua and Bafoussam.
In such a context, Paul Biya can continue to sleep peacefully and to retain power for a long time to come. He was re-elected with 71 percent of the votes for a new seven-year term in the presidential elections held in October 2018. His party, the Cameroonian’s People Democratic Rally (CPDM), has at least 150 of the 180 seats in the National Assembly. The road is clear for Biya to keep his prophecy of 2004: that of governing Cameroon for another 20 years. As Achille Mbembe joked, he might even be able to rule from his grave. The use of repression, both by the army and armed movements, which have assumed the right to administer death as they see fit, will also probably continue.
Meanwhile, the people of Ngarbuh will continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones without any justice for their deaths. How long should the Anglophone populations continue to live in the cauldron of the crisis? And are the international community and the African Union really powerless to stop this fratricidal war, or are they just indifferent?